Category Archives: ecology

Urban flora photography project

Queen of the Prairie (Photo/cm195902 wikimedia commons)

The last time someone found the Queen-of-the-prairie — a pretty, pink rose-like flower — growing in Indianapolis, Indiana, was in a small damp spot at the edge of Water Canal and 52nd Street. The time was July 1935.

Urbanization has had an untold impact on local wildlife. Of the 700 plus species of plants found in Indianapolis, native species have long been replaced by invasive ones. What we see today makes it hard to imagine what we might’ve seen 50 years ago. But a new study, that also happens to be a fantastic premise for a local conservation photography project, might help with that.

Ecologists at the Friesner Herbarium in Butler University, Indianapolis, compared species composition of 2,800 dried plant specimens predating 1940 to plants collected by students between 1996 and 2006. They found a floral community drastically changed from pre-urbanized days. While the number of species was similar, about 700, about 168 (if my math is correct)  native plants, including the Queen-of-the-prairie, have been replaced by non-native ones, such as the amur bush honeysuckle.

Honeysuckles don’t sound so bad, and the US Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service actually promoted the planting of it as a means to prevent erosion and feed wildlife. The plant has proven to do neither. The invasive honeysuckle now proliferates throughout the city along banks and wetlands and land managers pay hand over fist to eradicate it.

Perhaps the big take away from the study is that the plant changes caused by urbanization, at least in Indianapolis, is taking away their floral individuality, said the researchers in a press release.

So how does this turn into a photo project? The project by Butler University just screams visualization. I’m betting most urban areas have universities or museums with historical plant collections. They might even consider well-done portraits of these collections an asset to their archival and educational endeavors. Just think who you could partner with and what you could illustrate by creating a series of floral portraits comparing past and present plant communities in your city.

If you think a project like this isn’t important, keep these words from study lead and Director of  Friesner Herbarium Dr. Rebecca Dolan in mind. “As cities continue to grow, urban green spaces are becoming important refuges for native biodiversity and for people. In coming decades, most people’s contact with nature will be in urban settings, so the social importance of urban plants has never been greater.”

You can find the study in the current issue of the Journal of Ecology.

“As cities continue to grow, urban green spaces are becoming important refuges for native biodiversity and for people. In coming decades, most people’s contact with nature will be in urban settings, so the social importance of urban plants has never been greater.”
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Wildlife Candid Camera at Smithsonian

 

Smithsonian Wild

Want to spy on wild animals?

 

Check out this new website launched by Smithsonian that brings together more than 200,000 camera-trap images from seven of their research projects. The online library reveals the otherwise secret lives of rarely seen species, such as the clouded leopard, Amazon red squirrel and the Chinese Takin. Bet you never heard of that one, huh? Well, now you can see a picture of it and while away the minutes as fast as you can say Tremminck’s tragopan. Yes, that’s a real animal, though it looks about as funny as it sounds. Smithsonian Wild


CAT in WATER Kickstarter Launch!

Support the Kickstarter project to document them in the wild  here.

The fishing cat is up and running! We have 90 days to raise the first round of funds for the CAT in WATER expedition. Check out our Kickstarter project and watch the short video. You can also learn about all the paybacks in store for our supporters. Who wouldn’t want a care package from Thailand and the knowledge they are helping a gorgeous, wild animal in need?



Climate change leaves wolverines on slippery slope

istockphoto.com

Wolverines, those vociferous, marathon-climbing, fearless relatives of the sea otter may soon face a foe that no amount of bravery can outlast — climate change.

Climate model results from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, show wolverine habitat in the Lower 48 warming significantly from climate change during the second half of the century. The pending warmer climes threaten snow cover that is vital to the wolverine’s survival.

“It’s highly uncertain whether wolverines will continue to survive in the lower 48, given the changes that are likely to take place there,” said NCAR scientist Synte Peacock in a press release, and the lead author of a paper, which appears in Environmental Research Letters.

Wolverine Den (Photo/Wikimedia Commons,Ernst Vikne)

Wolverine Den (Photo/Wikimedia Commons,Ernst Vikne)

Wolverines dig snow dens for their kits 8 to 10 feet deep, and are specially adapted to run and hunt across the snow. Snow pack also helps preserve carrion that the wolverines rely on for sustenance throughout the winter. While about 15,000 wolverines are estimated to live across Canada and Alaska, only a few dozen are thought to still live in Montana, Wyoming and Washington State, according to the press release.

If the plight of the wolverine is not the kind of thing that gets your hair on end, there’s still reason to care. The study also found that a side effect of the loss of snow melt means big impacts for people as well. The projected lack of snow could reduce the amount of water in Idaho, western Montana and western Wyoming by as much as three or four-fold by the end of the century. Get those water-saving shower heads now.

The study is not meant to bring only doom and gloom. Researcher say this kind of analysis could help us think preventative. “This study is an example of how targeted climate predictions can produce new insights that could help us reduce the impact of future climate change on delicate ecosystems,” said Sarah Ruth, program director for the NSF’s Directorate for Geosciences in a press release.

Wolverine (Photo/U.S. National Park Service)

Wolverine (Photo/U.S. National Park Service)

A critter of unique character — to really understand what makes the wolverine such a remarkable creature, check out Douglas Chadwick’s book, The Wolverine Way. Even if you’re not a wildlife lover, this is an adventurous read that will leave you in awe of what a creature will do to survive.

NCAR Study available here.


Gangster Birds of the Kalahari Desert

A drongo in the Kalahari. (Photo/Andy Radford, University of Bristol)

Drongos, African Kalahari Desert birds with a penchant for thievery, are taking a turn towards the avian equivalent of organized crime, a new study finds.

The victims in this case, pied babblers, have long contended with the risk of drongos popping in to make off with the babblers’ hard-earned insect prey. Now it seems a set of behaviors have evolved that are taking this interaction from a purely parasitic relationship to one of more mutual benefit. Researchers found that the drongos form protection squads for foraging babblers, keeping an eye out for trouble and strong-arming danger when it arrives.

“Like any good gangster,” says Andrew Radford, a scientist with the University of Bristol who led the research team, “as well as lying and stealing, the drongos also provide protection by mobbing aerial predators and giving true alarm calls on some occasions.”

That means pied babblers can spend less time watching for predators and more time looking for prey. The relationship is not without its caveats. Drongos still aim to take advantage of babblers, crying wolf to scare the babblers and grab the insects. The babblers likely put up with it, the researchers say, because the benefit of not having to worry about predators outweighs the cost of the drongos’ antics.

The research, which is a collaboration with the Universities of Bristol, Cambridge and Cape Town, is published online in the current issue of Evolution.

Andy Radford (University of Bristol) and a pied babbler in the Kalahari. (Photo/Matthew Bell, University of Cambridge)

A pied babbler in the Kalahari. (Photo/Andy Radford, University of Bristol)


Changing Chesapeake Bay acidity endangers oysters

New research shows that the shell growth of Crassostrea virginica from Chesapeake Bay could be compromised by current levels of acidity in some Bay waters. (Photo/Chris Kelly, UMCES Horn Point Laboratory)

Growing up at the mouth of the Lynnhaven River in Virginia, where the river meets the Chesapeake Bay and the bay meets the ocean, I can’t tell you how many mornings I woke up and looked out my window to see neighbors wading in rubber boots, harvesting oysters from the beds just off our riverbank. For some, like my neighbors, oysters were a way to connect with the land and make a little extra dough. For others it was their livelihood. The act was something that just was. It never occurred to me that the oysters could one day be gone.

That’s why I was especially alarmed to read this new report from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences. Rising acidity levels in the Chesapeake Bay are making it harder for oysters to grow their shells. I’ve heard the news before that rising ocean acidity from sources such as carbon dioxide can spell disaster for marine wildlife, but this new study shows that acidity is rising faster in the Chesapeake Bay than in the ocean and having a measurable impact on Bay wildlife.

“With oyster populations already at historically low levels, increasingly acidic waters are yet another stressor limiting the recovery of the Bay’s oyster populations,” said marine biologist Dr. Roger Newell of the UMCES Horn Point Laboratory in a press release.

But don’t turn around to blame climate change just yet. The story is a bit more nuanced than that, though the source of the problem still has to do with us. In the saltier areas of the bay, the acidity is going up, leading to thin shell growth that makes oysters more vulnerable to predators, including crabs. But in more freshwater portions of the Bay, acidity is actually going down, said the study, which looked at more than 20 years of historical water quality data from the Bay.

The difference seems to be not atmospheric carbon dioxide, but the base of the food chain. In freshwater areas along the upper Chesapeake, sewage and agricultural runoff cause phytoplankton blooms, which consume carbon dioxide and lower acidity, said the study. Sounds good at this point right? Here’s the catch. As phytoplankton drift through the Bay, they are eaten by animals and other bacteria, releasing the carbon dioxide that the plankton so diligently consumed in the first place. This carbon dioxide lingers in the water, leading to spikes in acidity in the saltier regions of the Bay near the ocean.

“While these variations in acidity may improve conditions for shellfish in some areas, they may also magnify detrimental impacts in others,” said lead author Dr. George Waldbusser of Oregon State University in a press release. “What our study indicates is there may be an important shifting baseline and without better measurements we will fail to fully understand impacts on estuarine biota.”

Beyond the science itself, this study highlights how connected and varied our environment is. It lays out a pathway of human-induced consequences to an ecosystem, and teaches that we need to look beyond one-to-one cause and effect. Erin Voigt, an undergraduate student who worked on the study puts it well. “The complex response of oyster shell formation to temperature, salinity, and acidity highlights the need to understand how the entire ecosystem is changing, not just acidity,” she said.

And that ecosystem includes us.

You can view the article online in the journal Estuaries and Coasts.


Red squirrels are people too. They adopt

Red squirrel taking an adopted baby from nest. (Photo/Ryan W. Taylor)

In another life, I must’ve been a dog. Whenever I’m out walking and see a squirrel, I have an almost uncontrollable urge to see how close I can get to it before the scrappy rodent scrabbles up a tree. Inevitably, a staring contest ensues, which the squirrel usually ends up winning.

My suppressed animal urges aside, I do notice something kind of educational about squirrels. They tend to be alone. When they’re not, they are usually chasing each other like crazed maniacs in a not too friendly manner without regard to life or other happenings.

That’s why it might come as a surprise that they practice a typically human behavior – they adopt. And they adopt outside their social group. A new study by researchers at the University of Alberta determined that red squirrels will take in abandoned or otherwise parent-less young and raise them as their own, a seemingly altruistic act. The behavior turns out not to be as charitable as it sounds – the squirrels do get a survival perk. But the discovery is nonetheless an unusual one in the animal kingdom, with its own squirrely flare to boot.

Jamieson Gorrell, a Ph.D. student in evolutionary biology at the University of Alberta and lead of the study, was observing a population of Yukon red squirrels and noticed a lone female had taken a baby from an abandoned nest to raise as her own. When Gorrell sifted through 20 years of red squirrel research from the area, he found four other instances of the same behavior. Not only that, but in each account, the baby adopted was a relative.

Gorrell found that despite their antisocial tendencies, red squirrels are still able to recognize, and decide to care for, relatives. Right now the predominant notion is that the chitter-chatter squirrels screech out to mark territory or ward off others contains vocal clues about relativity. So an encroaching squirrel could hear the calls of another adult, and recognize kinship. If that other mother disappears, the encroaching squirrel may recognize the kinship of the abandoned nest and take action.

In addition to the novelty factor of the behavior, the study authors also state that this finding proves a long-standing evolutionary theory true. It is a concept known as Hamilton’s Rule, which suggests that despite “the law of the jungle and survival of the fittest,” animals can be altruistic.

Though for red squirrels, it’s a tempered altruism. The red squirrel is still helping out a member of its bloodline, and will only help one baby out of a litter. Adopting more than one is “out of the question,” according to the study, as the strain of adding more than one baby to a single mother’s already full house would outweigh any benefits.

You can read more about the study in the online journal Nature Communications, or visit this link http://www.redsquirrel.ca/KRSP/Media.html to get more info, cute pics, and free copy of the study.


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